By Don Furman, Fix the Grid

Today, California policy-makers are learning about a key tool the state will need to reach its climate and clean energy goals: a modern electricity grid. Transforming the way our state accesses its energy, integrating a diverse range of renewable sources and utilities, and doing so in an affordable and equitable way, is how California will continue to lead on attacking important issues like climate change.

Along with the launch of our new website today, the Fix the Grid coalition has sent this letter to state legislative leadership describing the need and the opportunity to create a low-carbon grid for California. This coalition – comprised of clean energy companies, technical experts and environmental organizations, has come together to convey to political and policy leaders what we already know: that a low carbon grid is not only feasible, it is a sound investment for California’s economic future.

Wind and solar are as clean as coal is dirty. But they only make electricity when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, so we call them “variable” or “intermittent.” When these technologies were just getting started, utilities didn’t care that they were variable – there was so little of these new sources that the intermittency was too small to matter. Today, with clean energy close to providing a third of California’s power, and plans to go much higher, that’s no longer the case.

Now, when the sun is shining in California, solar is displacing fossil fuel during the day, but gas plants are idled and ramped up to meet late afternoon and early evening peak demand periods. This makes carbon emissions worse, hurting progress toward greenhouse gas goals, and exacerbates particulate and other smokestack pollutants in the lower-income communities where many of California’s gas plants are located.

The cheapest solution is to work better in California and across our region to enable extra generation from clean sources to be accessed when needed. So, for example, using Northwest wind or hydro when our sun is setting, and exporting our solar when their wind or hydro is not available. By sharing, we can avoid expensive duplication of assets, and reduce the use of gas plants and unspecified “system imports.” But because electricity moves in an instant, these efficiencies must be captured very quickly, using automation and modern technology.

We’re fortunate in California that we already have a modern grid operator, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), with the kind of up-to-date technology needed to be able to manage this real-time efficient movement of clean energy sources. Today, CAISO operates the systems of California’s three largest investor-owned utilities – and it’s from that experience that we know how much bill-payer money can be saved and pollution offset. However, some utilities in California and much of the rest of the West operate in a series of silos, and moving clean energy through those many jurisdictions is clumsy, inefficient and expensive.

To take clean energy to 50 percent and beyond, generate jobs and keep our economy going with affordable clean energy, CAISO will need to be able to welcome publicly owned utilities into the mix, as well as out-of-state utilities that share the same environmental values as California. That’s a big job, but it’s this next step that will provide the geographic diversity and level of utility integration needed for California to reach our goals. This is a grid we know how to build, and now more than ever, need to build it.

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